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Lawmakers advance proposal to increase gas taxes and vehicle fees to fund California road repairs

 (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Faced with a personal appeal by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Senate panel on Monday gave the first approval to a measure that would raise gas taxes and vehicle fees by $52 billion during the next decade for road and bridge repairs.

The bill by Brown and legislative leaders was approved in a 5-2, party-line vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sent it to the Senate floor, where it is proposed to come up for a vote on Thursday.

“The roads are broken and they are getting worse and they are not going to get better unless we get a significant injection of money,” Brown told the panel in rare testimony to a legislative committee.

The governor made similar comments later in the day to the Assembly Transportation Committee, where Republicans challenged him on the past diversion of transportation funds to the general fund. Brown noted the money went to pay debt on transportation bonds, so the money was properly spent.

Brown acknowledged that the tax increases are “a big lift” and are politically difficult. “I know there is a political concern because people don’t like gas taxes, but what do you do,” he said. He said if action is not taken this year, it might not happen for years.

“All the guys running for governor [in 2020] want to be president so they are not going to want to raise taxes,” he told the committee.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) was among the committee members who voted for the bill.

“The tax hasn’t increased in 23 years,” Hill said. “I think this is a reasonable approach in trying to balance the need with the demand.”

Republican Sen. Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel complained the proposal ignores Republican ideas for using existing funds to fix roads.

“It isn’t bipartisan,” she told the governor, who accused Republican lawmakers of being haunted by “the ghost of Howard Jarvis,” the late tax-cutting pioneer.

Several environmental groups said they oppose a provision in the bill that bars government agencies from requiring the retirement, replacement or retrofit of trucks until the later of either 13 years from the model year of the engine, or when the vehicle reaches 800,000 miles.

“This is one of the most extreme efforts to put bounds on the regulatory agencies’ activities to stop pollution that I have seen in recent times,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

Environmentalists continued to oppose the measure despite an amendment Monday to allow state and regional air-pollution control boards to create new rules to reduce smog created by trucking hubs, such as giant warehouses, ports and airports.

Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air said he continues to oppose the bill for tying the hands of air quality regulators who might want to adopt new rules to provide for cleaner truck operations.

“We are concerned by the negative effects that will be caused in the disadvantaged communities we work in,” added Abigail Ramirez of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability.

If approved by the Senate and Assembly, the measure would raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, to a total of 30 cents per gallon, raise diesel taxes and create a new annual vehicle fee that would average $51 based on the value of the car or truck. State officials estimate the tax package will cost the average motorist $10 per month.

The bill was supported in testimony by Transportation California, a business and labor group; the California Trucking Assn.; and the League of California Cities.

Opponents citing its added cost include the National Federation of Independent Business/California, the California Farm Bureau and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

“Let’s not jam this through before spring break,” David Wolfe of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. said.

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